Unintended consequences

Ever done something that didn’t quite work out as planned? Here’s some advice about navigating the laws of unintended consequences.

Greetings from Denver, Colorado.


While travelling this week I got to thinking about the laws of unintended consequences – you know, those things that result from a well-intentioned idea or decision when you sit back and say “I didn’t think that would happen…”


Of course, not all unintended consequences are bad, sometimes things work out even better than we expected (we tend to call those welcome surprises), but more often than not they are on the negative side.


I am not talking about spectacular, imploding grand failure here, but more the “small eminently sensible steps we take to certain disaster” as described by author Dietrich Dorner. One look at the newspaper on any given day will show the laws in action across business, government and everywhere in between.


However, you can break the mould. Here are a couple of things you can do to navigate the laws of unintended consequences.


1. Before you make a decision take a 360 degree look, several layers out, look around and see what might happen. We tend to look at things from a linear and discrete point of view, only considering immediate consequences within the area directly affected by the decision. Look in every nook and cranny you can think of and project out as far into the future as you can. What else might be affected?

For example a computer hardware company I worked with had a reputation for great quality of their products. Their defect record was almost a perfect zero until a bright spark upstairs decided to speed up the production line. Result; more defects, more unhappy customers, and no customer service protocols to handle them – they had rarely had to handle many customer calls before and so had never developed a robust customer service department. Guess what happened to their reputation?

2. When something does happen, don’t over react. Compounding the issue by over-adjusting your response is the classic reaction in too many situations. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but consider this example from Dietrich Dorner’s book The Logic of Failure.

A group of people were given a computer simulation where the automatic thermostat on a freezer of valuable produce was broken, but the temperature could be adjusted manually to keep it stable for eight hours until produce was picked up. Nearly every one in the exercise over-adjusted, swinging wildly back from too warm to too cold like a pendulum.


The only person who achieved success adjusted their temperature one degree at a time up and down until it was balanced. Do you think you would be like that person?


See you next week from the “deep south!”


Alignment is Michel’s passion. Through her work with Brandology here in Australia, and Brand Alignment Group in the United States, she helps organisations align who they are, with what they do and say to build more authentic and sustainable brands.



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